Colorado Legislature Poised For A Look At Oil & Gas Health Impacts

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Originally published on March 13, 2015 9:46 am

Trying to get more information on the health impact of oil and gas drilling is a topic that lawmakers will soon be taking up at the statehouse. It comes after the Governor's Oil and Gas Task Force finished their work and issued several health related recommendations.

"I get a little bit concerned and annoyed when people try to use health as the basis of what they don't like about oil and gas," said Dr. Larry Wolk the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.

He said he understands the concern, but worries the state doesn't have enough hard data.

"People may not like the look or noise, or truck traffic or smells, often that gets couched as the argument as it relates to health," said Wolk. "We want to make sure we're factual and evidence based."

To that end Wolk is hoping to move forward on several recommendations put forth by the task force, including one that would create a mobile unit to try and study health risks.

"To address concerns about proximity of an oil and gas operation to their home, school or neighborhood, we can go out with a mobile monitoring unit and stay and measure what those potential health impacts might be," Wolk said. "So that people don't worry about sounds, or smells or symptoms."

The task force also proposed adding more health department staff to study air quality and the creation of a health complaint hotline.

While Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst (D-Boulder) backs the health proposals – she said they don't go far enough and that's why Democrats are proposing their own.

"Which relates directly to people's health, doesn't just look at the ambient air issues, which is a lot of what the health department has been doing," said Hullinghorst.

Representative Joanne Ginal (D-Fort Collins) would be the main sponsor of a new health study. She hasn't introduced the measure – but says it will be similar to bills she's backed in the past.

"For two years now I've tried to bring a bill forward that would look at the health data in an analysis for six counties along the front range that are impacted by increased oil and gas production," said Ginal.

She wants her constituents to feel safe and thinks scientific data would help.

"I believe that we have an increase in population and we have an increase in oil and gas and we have to learn to live together," said Ginal. "I'm not opposed to the oil and gas industry. I think it's a vital part of our economy. My constituents are only asking if there could be some data that shows the air that they breathe and that their communities are healthy."

Any Democratic proposal will face opposition from Republicans who now control the Senate. Senate President Bill Cadman said he does support the task force health recommendations but thinks no health study could ever appease people who oppose hydraulic fracturing.

"There are some people that are going to drive up to you in their diesel powered car and their polypropylene jackets and demand that we stop producing these things," said Cadman.

While Ginal's oil and gas health study passed the House in 2014 with bipartisan support it was Democrats in control of the Senate that ultimately defeated it.

"There was a bill setting up a study a health study in oil and gas patches which included a survey of residents of an area that were already fired up about fracking and the affects it would have on their health," said Senator Mary Hodge (D-Brighton). "I could support a bill that's truly scientific, non-biased that looks at the impacts of oil and gas exploration in the area."

But for House Speaker Hullinghorst that argument doesn't fly.

"Those are the areas where they're doing fracking. You've got to target the areas where it's happening so I think that's a fairly lame argument against her health bill."

Even though Ginal's proposal will likely fail, the recommendations from the task force have a green light. Though they come at a cost. Dr. Larry Wolk of the state Health Department said the proposals would require state lawmakers to come up with anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars up to $1 million for funding.

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